Philosophical Friday: Freedom Of Speech

            “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  The first amendment of the Constitution has guaranteed the freedom of speech since December 12, 1792.  “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”  The United Nations have recognized the freedom of speech as a Universal Human Right since December 10, 1948.  The freedom of speech is present in more than 150 countries that are members of the United Nations.  It is obvious that the freedom of speech is extremely important to any civilized country.  The right to freely express one’s thoughts and opinions is at the forefront of what it means to be a free nation.  When one typically thinks of an infringement of the freedom of speech they envision an authoritarian government squashing the citizens who cry out for freedom and equality or the end to some other mistreatment.  That is not the only type of speech defended by these many countries.  It is not the “freedom to speak what others will not be offended by and to (only) think what may offend others.”  If the freedom of speech operates in a way that it defends the rights of one person to offend someone else, should it be changed? Is offensive speech something that should be restricted? Or do we, as a civilized society, need to tolerate the ignorant or dogmatic views of some so that we do not become dogmatic ourselves?  And if the freedom of speech does not operate as it should, what alternative do we have?

In his essay, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill addresses the issue of freedom of thought and expression.  He illustrates the benefits of having the freedom of speech.  In the case of a false opinion, which Mill believes we can never fully prove, allowing it to be heard and expressed only serves to reinforce the correctness of the opposing argument.  In the case of a true opinion, it allows us to exchange falsity for the truth.  While some may view opinions to be subjective, and therefore neither absolutely correct nor incorrect, there are certainly areas in which an opinion can be concretely right or wrong.  Take slavery for example.  The opinion would be “slavery is acceptable” or “slavery is acceptable if and only if such and such requirements are met” or some other variation.  Slavery helped to draw the line between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War.  In this example there are large bodies believing in either opinion, but would the belief that slavery is immoral have been any less correct had there been only one person to believe it?  It is a commonly held belief that only the “true opinions” will prevail long enough to become the popular opinion, but that would require massive amounts of people to reconsider all of their opinions at the same time.  The rejection of incorrect opinions serves a unique purpose in how society functions.  It allows us to review an opposing opinion and reject it, thereby allowing our own opinions to be strengthened.  Allowing people to freely express their ideas becomes more important when you consider a correct opinion held by another.  Without the ability to express opinions and thoughts the world would be stuck in a dogmatic funk.  Society would be a one-minded almost robotic being that functioned without thinking and without innovating.  With the inclusion of opposing opinions in society, our own reasoning is tested and either validated or revised, based on the portion of truth contained in the opposing argument.  When one considers a reasonable opinion held by another, there is no downside.  They either strengthen their own by incorporating correct portions of the differing opinion, or they reinforce the opinion they already held by rejecting a false opinion.  The benefits outweigh the harms in this scenario, but what if the opinion is not reasonable?  Is it still permissible to allow an “incorrect” opinion if the harms outweigh the benefits?  Would we be justified in reinforcing our own opinions by rejecting an opinion that caused harms to others?  Would it be moral for a person to allow hateful speech, which has no other discernible upsides than strengthening our own opinions, if it in fact harmed others?  I am of course alluding to the Westboro Baptist Church.

The Westboro Baptist Church, headed by Fred Phelps, has been actively picketing the funerals of homosexual males, AIDS victims and dead soldiers since 1991.  They have conducted over 45,000 demonstrations at funerals of homosexuals and other events including “funerals of impenitent sodomites (like Matthew Shepard) and over 400 military funerals of troops whom God has killed in Iraq/Afghanistan in righteous judgment against an evil nation.” (About Westboro Baptist Church)  They picket using signs depicting extremely offensive material such as: God hates fags, Thank God for AIDS, Fags burn in hell, Thank God for Dead Soldiers and other ridiculously hateful speech.  Recently, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church 8 votes to 1. (Washington Post) The justices said that “no matter how hurtful the speech employed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the First Amendment protected them from having to pay damages to the grieving father they targeted.”  The one dissenting judge, Samuel A. Alito Jr., stated that the protestors did not have a right to “brutalize” the family.  Is this the kind of behavior a civilized nation allows?  According to a survey done by the Associated Press, 78% of American’s think that Freedom of Speech should mean that “people should have the right to say what they believe even if they take positions that seem deeply offensive to most people.” (Washington Post)  Is this really the way our Freedom of Speech should operate?  Would Mill defend this type of speech?  If he did, it would be only because this type of speech did not cause harm to others.

Mill’s harm principle lays out a guideline for the interference of the Government on individual liberties.  Only when harm is caused to an individual outside the person committing the act is a government permissible in making a law to restrict an individual’s right to act.  In the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, it would be impossible to prohibit this type of action if one believed in Mill’s harm principle.  The actions of the protestors cause no harm to the grieving family; they are just incredibly disrespectful and offensive.  Mill draws a distinct line between offensive behavior and harmful behavior.  The fact that a behavior is offensive is not sufficient cause to make a law against it, no matter how offensive.  The offended have to suck it up and deal with it.  The fact that the Westboro Baptist Church is verbally assaulting a family at their time of grieving would not matter.  Mill would defend their right to thought and action, as did the Supreme Court.  Is this what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind?  Did they envision a future where religious zealots were able to verbally attack and harass grieving widows and family members of soldiers of their own country?  Would we be justified in prohibiting such behavior?  Or would we merely become oppressive bigots who silence the opinions of anyone who has a differing opinion?

Whenever a government throws around the word censorship, people tend to perk up their ears.  They get jumpy when “big brother” attempts to tell them what they can or cannot say; which is why freedom of speech is so important.  Would the restriction of hate speech truly be considered censorship?  While it would obviously restrict people’s freedom to speak or act how they see fit, perhaps some people need to be regulated.  There are certainly people who the vast majority of the population would like to be quiet but is putting a clamp on their freedoms the way to get them to stop spewing their hatred upon the masses?  Probably not.  While the Westboro Baptist Church has absolutely no intention of changing their ways because they are unpopular, a public demonstration that their behavior is unacceptable would surely discourage some from joining their ranks or starting up a loud and boisterous cult of their own.  Their website even claims zero as being the number of “nanoseconds of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiiings.”  True bigots or religious zealots who portray their views in such a distressing way seem beyond help short of anything but a miracle, but the masses as a whole need to publicly demonstrate that this type of behavior is not acceptable in a civilized society.  In the case of the WBC, an anti-protest would be a solution to the problem, not government involvement.  This has in fact worked in the past.  One march was planned for April 30th, 2011 and has become an annual event.  In some areas people have protested the WBC in such a way that they have just given up on their demonstration and gone home.  This is the type of reaction needed, not government intervention.

Hate speech is an interesting topic for many reasons.  First, the speakers are typically extremely enthusiastic about their opinions.  Second, they tend to be close minded, so much so that no amount of reasoning or logic will change their minds.  Third, it seems to be passed down from one generation to another, which the grown generation teaches their children to be the same way they are.  Fourth and finally, they care absolutely nothing for those they are speaking to; no amount of consideration is given to the feelings or opinions of anyone but themselves, or those that think like them.  In times of crisis or disaster, this type of behavior appears to be infectious.  After 9/11 an alarming number of anti-Muslim opinions were voiced.  People throughout the United States wanted someone to blame so they chose the Islamic community without considering the fact that there are individuals within that religion and that the ones who were responsible for that tragedy were in fact extremists of Islam and not the overarching population.  During the years preceding the Second World War, the common belief amongst the German people was that the Jews were responsible for all of the misfortunes that had befallen Germany.  Both of these examples did not last to become the common opinion throughout the world.  The German opinion took a little longer to change but eventually it did.  Yet these opinions still prevail.  The Neo-Nazi party is still active, putting forth a candidate for the presidency for every election.  These examples make it clear that hate speech has been around for a long time, and will remain for a long time, if not forever.  The fact that it seems to be here to stay does not mean that it should be tolerated however.

While people will always maintain their own opinions, there exist behaviors that are universally unacceptable.  These behaviors should not be curbed by ruling governments or institutions, but rather those who are forced to listen to them.  In the face of “adversity,” the Westboro Baptist Church backed down.  The Patriot Riders, a biker gang started in August of 2005, seem to be a direct response to the WBC.  The Patriot Riders mission is to “attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family.”  At each of these funerals they have 2 main goals.  The first goal is to “show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities,” and the second is to “shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors.” (Patriot Guard Riders)  This is a prime example of how the public should respond to such ridiculous behavior.  The Patriot Guard works within the law and non-violently to lessen the effect the Westboro Baptist Church can have on the grieving families.

While the government may not be justified in restricting hateful speech, something can be done to limit such outrageous behavior.  While Mill may not be able to set forth an example of harmful and hateful speech that would justify the interference of the government, I don’t think he would have a problem with people of differing beliefs voicing their own opinions.  In fact, he would probably encourage it.  While dogmatic minds may not be changed easily, if at all, that does not mean that it is pointless to try.  If nothing else, we may discourage less enthusiastic bigots to keep their mouths shut by showing them that there are real consequences for their actions.  There is no point in allowing people to express their idiotic, disrespectful and just plain stupid opinions if we express our intolerance for such opinions.  The government may protect the freedom of speech for those who use it to spew their hateful nonsense, but it also protects our right to loudly and publicly disagree with them.


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